Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Mattis, General Dunford and Special Envoy McGurk on the Campaign to Defeat ISIS in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford; Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
May 19, 2017
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
I returned last week from a meeting in Copenhagen with ministers of defense from 14 nations to coordinate our political way ahead in the Defeat ISIS campaign. Chairman Dunford returned yesterday from a chief of defense meeting in Brussels, with 28 NATO nations plus his counterparts from a dozen additional nations, and they discussed the military aspects of that campaign. Mr. McGurk, President Trump’s special envoy and vital State Department leader to the coalition to counter ISIS returned a few hours ago from his trip to Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
This is our first opportunity to get together, and we took advantage of that for this conference. So today’s a good time to update you, describing basically where we’re at, what has changed and the way ahead.
President Trump directed the Department of Defense to lead all departments in a comprehensive review of the campaign. We submitted that report and after his review, he then ordered an accelerated operation against ISIS.
So what does that mean?
Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s review of our findings.
First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.
Secondly, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS. The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters.
I want to emphasize here there has been no change to our rules of engagement and there has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties, despite needing to go into populated areas to break ISIS hold on their self-described caliphate, despite ISIS purposely endangering innocent lives by refusing to allow civilians to evacuate. And we continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent.
You’re all aware of the human costs ISIS has exacted, killed, wounded, refugees, merciless control over those regions they hold, the cost to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon as Syrians and Iraqis have been displaced.
In response to ISIS malicious and unforgivable treatment toward innocents, the world has responded. I emphasize that this is a coalition effort. Since this began in 2014, the coalition has strengthened and expanded. The international team is fully committed at the political and military levels to the destruction of ISIS. A coalition of 68 members — 65 nations with more joining as we speak, plus Interpol, the European Union and Arab League — united in opposition, sharing intelligence, providing troops and funds for combat and, of no less importance, for the post-combat recovery.
In late March, our secretary of state gathered diplomatic colleagues in Washington, where they discussed how we would deal with the post-combat aftermath. Secretary Tillerson, Mr. McGurk and their colleagues in the coalition rightly focused most of their effort on how this ravaged region can recover from ISIS depredations after we free it.
Twenty-six of our coalition nations contribute militarily, including more than 4,000 non-U.S. troops on the ground and in the air. Our recent coalition meetings in Brussels, Copenhagen and elsewhere reflect an energized campaign among contributing nations partnering with, of course, the Iraqi security forces in Iraq and the counter-ISIS forces in Syria.
So what have we achieved?
We have fought ISIS elements from Southeast Asia to Africa. Collaboration among many nations‘ intelligence services continues to complicate and blunt ISIS operations even as ISIS continues to pursue and conduct attacks against the United States and our allies through centralize directed plots, but also through inspired attacks.
From the Philippines to Europe and beyond, while ISIS remains dangerous, they are no longer carrying an air of strength.
In Afghanistan two weeks ago, President Ghani announced we had killed the leader of ISIS Khorasan plus approximately two-thirds of their strength been killed during very tough operations mostly in Nangarhar Province.
France has brilliantly led a two-year ongoing campaign in the Lake Chad basin in West Africa to throw ISIS off balance, with 4,000 of their troops on the ground to support our African allies.
In Libya, we struck a significant ISIS presence there in January of this year. Our attack against their concentrated strength was highly effective, and ISIS did not know — own any major territory any longer there. Elsewhere, too, there have been successes. But in Iraq and Syria lies the core area of ISIS — of a geographic caliphate.
Recent attacks in Istanbul, Paris and Brussels were planned and coordinated out of ISIS’s so-called capital in Raqqa. Additional eminent threats to many nations require us to move with urgency against all strongholds still in their hands.
East Mosul, as you know, has fallen after tough fighting by the Iraqi Security Forces with U.S. and coalition support. Since January, it is returning to — bit normal with businesses reopening, cleanup underway, and kids back in school.
West Mosul, in accordance with tactics changed by President Trump, is surrounded, and our Iraqi partners are in a stiff fight. There is no escape for ISIS, even while we do all that is humanly possible to shepherd the innocent out of harm’s way.
Tal Afar, which lies to the west of Mosul is also surrounded. And other pockets of ISIS exist elsewhere in Ninawa, Hawija, and the western Euphrates River Valley of Anbar Province. We will continue to fully support the Iraqi Security Forces and Prime Minister Abadi’s government in isolating and destroying ISIS throughout Iraq.
In Syria, we support Syrian Democratic Forces that recently seized Manbij, have taken Tabqa and are currently attacking with great success to isolate Raqqa. ISIS has additional strength scattered down the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraq border. We will not stop until they, too, are destroyed.
I want our chairman, General Dunford, and our president’s special envoy, Mr. McGurk, to provide more details. So, let me sum up.
We are leading a comprehensive international campaign to crush ISIS’s claim of invincibility, to deny ISIS a geographic haven from which to hatch murder, eliminate ISIS’s ability to operate externally and eradicate their ability to recruit and finance terrorist operations.
Thanks to the leadership and authorities granted by President Trump, thanks to the spirit of dozens of nations committed to this fight, thanks to the nations whose troops have gone toe to toe with this terrorist group, with the deepest sympathy for the families that have lost sons and daughters in this fight and with the greatest respect for the families caught up on the battlefields that we know it — are also humanitarian fields, we have retaken over 55 percent of ISIS territory there in the core.
Over four million people have been liberated. And not one inch of territory seized from ISIS has been recaptured from them — excuse me, recaptured by them.
Now, let me turn it over to Chairman Dunford and Mr. McGurk for more specifics on our Defeat ISIS campaign.
GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for the opportunity to join Secretary Mattis and Special Envoy McGurk to update you on our progress in the campaign against ISIS.
As Secretary Mattis indicated, our partnered approach has brought significant progress. We reduced ISIS-held territory, limited their freedom of movement, destroyed a great deal of their leadership, reduced the flow — flow of foreign fighters into and from the region, diminished their financial resources and, I think, perhaps most importantly, we’ve undermined the credibility of their narrative that there’s a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The secretary spoke about the territorial gains of the coalition. In addition, coalition airstrikes and ground operations have struck approximately 2,600 ISIS-held gas and oil targets, 1500 tanker trucks. And that’s resulted in ISIS having the lowest revenue at any point since 2014.
The coalition has also removed key ISIS leaders from the battlefield. These losses have limited ISIS’s ability to plan and direct external attacks, recruit foreign fighters, broadcast their narrative and fund their brand of terror.
In Iraq, we’re partnered with Iraqi security forces. U.S. and coalition forces are providing equipment and intelligence, conducting air strikes and advising military leaders. It’s important to emphasize that the fighting in Iraq and been done by Iraqi forces, and they perform remarkably — and has also sacrificed.
In Mosul alone, they’re suffered approximately 980 killed and over 6,000 wounded. And I just comment, as an aside, in addition to the competence that they’ve demonstrated Mosul, and the sacrifice, the one thing I’ve seen over time, in the 15 months I’ve been back and forth visiting in Iraq, in this particular assignment, is the confidence of the Iraqi leadership.
Some of you accompanied on my most recent trip. And compared to the fall of 2015 — to today, it’s very clear, when you go over and visit them, who is in charge, and the level of confidence of the commanders in their ability to lead and in their soldiers‘ ability to fight is remarkably different than it was a short time ago.
In Syria, working alongside our Turkish ally and partnered forces, we’ve cleared ISIS elements from the Turkish-Syrian border. That’s stemming the flow of foreign fighters, weapons and money to ISIS’s front lines. And we estimate that, at its peak, foreign fighter flow in Iraq and Syria was 1,500 fighters per month. And today we estimate that those numbers are less than 100 per month.
In addition, Syrian Democratic Forces are completing their isolation of Raqqa. Raqqa has been the center — as Secretary Mattis mentioned — of planning and directing operations such as the attacks in Paris and Berlin.
We’re also taking the fight to ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria, attacking the — their affiliates and any groups that claim allegiance. ISIS is a transregional threat, and we have a global approach.
Secretary spoke about my recent meeting in — in NATO. That’s just one of many meetings that we have routinely — I’m working very closely with more than 60 of my counterparts to expand the coalition that we have in dealing with ISIS, and our priority clearly is to prevent attacks against the homeland.
Our strategic approach is to cut the connectivity between ISIS affiliates and associates, and that’s specifically the foreign fighter flow, their illicit resources and their message.
Our objective is to drive down ISIS’s capability to a point where local forces, with tailored support from the international community, is able to provide security. And we’re doing this today in Libya, Somalia and Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
As Secretary Mattis mentioned, the president directed us to find ways to accelerate the campaign, and we’ve identified opportunities to do that. For example, we recommended to the secretary, and President Trump approved the decision, to equip the Syrian Democratic Forces early this week, and in Iraq, the decision to allow our advisers to accompany down to the battalion level, particularly in operations in Mosul — complex urban terrain, where our proximity to Iraqi partners has enabled us to provide better support. And we’re going to continue to look for opportunities to accelerate the campaign in the future.
Before I take questions, I want to mention that the progress that we’ve made to date is a reflection of the professionalism and the competence of our men and women in uniform, our diplomats and our intelligence personnel. And we’re also fortunate to have a strong coalition and brave partners on the ground.
I’ve already mentioned the Iraqi and the Syrian sacrifices. As we approach Memorial Day, we should also reflect on the sacrifices of young Americans. Most recently, Rangers Joshua Rodgers and Cameron Thomas in Afghanistan, First Lieutenant Weston Lee in Iraq and Senior Chief Kyle Milliken in Somalia.
Again, thank you. I’ll be followed by Special Envoy McGurk.
SPECIAL ENVOY BRETT MCGURK: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, chairman, for the opportunity to describe how our — our diplomatic efforts are working in lockstep with the military campaign to destroy ISIS and — and ensure it cannot return.
As the secretary and chairman just mentioned, ISIS has lost 55,000 square kilometers of territory to coalition backed forces. And ISIS has retaken none of that ground. The reason for that record, our close cooperation between the military and civilian departments and agencies, between a global coalition of 68 members, all supporting partners with influence, courage, and capacity on the ground.
As the secretary mentioned, I just returned from the region this morning including trips outside Mosul and Raqqa. I met some of the brave Syrians and Iraqis who only months ago were living under the terror of ISIS. And to date, coalition enabled operations have freed more than four million people from areas that had been controlled by ISIS. This is a remarkable record and we’re now working to accelerate these effects with pressure on ISIS‘ capital of Raqqa and their dwindling areas still under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria.
During my recent trip, I again witnessed how our diplomats are fully integrated with our military colleagues around the whole of government effort to fulfill President Trump’s charge to destroy ISIS and ensure it can never return. As many of you’ve seen, I wish all the American people could see the extraordinary work that our men and women in uniform are doing together with our courageous diplomats on the ground in these areas.
When Secretary Tillerson hosted all 68 members of our coalition in March, it was significant that he was joined throughout parts of the day by Secretary Mattis, by Secretary Mnuchin, Director Pompeo, Director Coats, and other representatives from across our interagency. This demonstrated to the coalition and to the world our united whole of government approach as directed by the president.
Such cooperation is enabling an anaconda-like approach to suffocate ISIS of its territory, finances, propaganda and ability to move foreign fighters. I’ll give you some examples. Before partner force launches a military operation, we do extensive diplomatic and political work at the local levels to try to set conditions for stability after ISIS. Mosul was essential example of this where we’ve seen really unprecedented cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi Security Forces working together, fighting together and taking casualties together.
This cooperation has enabled closer political coordination between local, regional, and national governments to help return people to their homes after the battles are won through an innovative post-conflict approach based on empowering people at the local level to restore life to their communities. And we call this stabilization and it’s one of the primary focuses of our global coalition led particularly by Germany, Italy, France, UAE, Norway, U.K., other key contributors.
Stabilization is not nation-building. We’re not attempting to dictate political outcomes nor is it long-term reconstruction where projects are chosen by outsiders often with no connection to the local community costing and often wasting billions of dollars. Instead, stabilization is a low-cost, sustainable, citizen-driven effort to identify the key projects that are essential to returning people to their homes such as water pumps, electricity nodes, grain silos, and local security structures, local police.
The initial focus on demining key facilities because ISIS plants — ISIS plants explosives in all of these facilities to ensure people can’t return has been a critical focus of our coalition. In Iraq alone, Iraqis, trained by our coalition, supporting demining, have now cleared 34 tons of explosive material. Following demining, experts come in, local workers from local areas, Syrians and Iraqis to restore key facilities and enable life to return.
This is not glamorous work, but it’s working. In Iraq, 1.7 million Iraqis are now back in their homes; no longer displaced, no longer refugees or migrants seeking to flee. That record is historically unprecedented in a conflict of this nature, and we give tremendous credit to the government of Iraq and local leaders who have worked cooperatively to stabilize local areas and return local populations.
In Mosul, as the chairman just mentioned, the battle’s not over. It’s approaching its final stages thanks to the historic and really heroic sacrifice of the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga supported by our coalition.
ISIS is not resorting to barbaric tactics, using civilians as shields to hold onto the territory that they still hold.
In areas of the city that have been cleared however, life is starting to return. Thanks in no small measure to the stabilization projects, more than 200 now that have been supported by our coalition, by the United Nation and the Iraqi government.
I visited one of these projects last week, a water treatment plant that had been destroyed by ISIS and since it has been demined, restored by local workers and then with very limited coalition support it’s now pumping fresh water to 100,000 homes.
To date in Mosul 116,000 displaced civilians have returned, 250,000 boys and girls are back in school and we’re working to ensure that these trend lines continue.
Raqqa we used the same model. I just visited a town north of Raqqa where local leaders are organizing for the day after ISIS and working with local Syrians, as we did before the Mosul operation, we’ve identified hundreds of critical sites and targets for stabilization projects.
After ISIS we’ll work to support demining of those facilities and then their rapid restoration, relying on local workers who know the area and how things get done.
The Raqqa campaign will take time but our core principal holds, after the battle local people, (inaudible-) from the area, should be in charge of their city and enable to help life to return to the streets and invite people to return.
So a few days ago I met an Arab leader from the town of Tabqa, a stronghold of ISIS for over three years, just west of Raqqa. He described to us the thousands of foreign fighters from as far away as Trinidad and Tobago who terrorize his community, enslaving women, brainwashing children and committing public executions.
He also said he believes that most of these foreign fighters are now dead. And he’s working to organize demining initiatives and ensure the streets are safe for people to return and enable the people of Tabqa — the local people of Tabqa to restore their community.
So Raqqa will be no different. Syria, of course, is far more difficult than Iraq. We don’t have a government to work with and we will never work with the Assad regime. We require much more from our coalition partners and from the international community.
When Secretary Tillerson called on the coalition to support stabilization initiatives back in March, he received an impressive $2.6 billion, much of which is now being spent. But more will be required from our coalition and we’ll work — look for our partners to maintain — to maintain at least three quarters of stabilization support for every U.S. dollar.
The battle for Raqqa is about making the world safer for ISIS and would allow much of our coalition partners as they continue to support this effort. And President Trump will have the opportunity on March — on May 25th to discuss these initiatives with our NATO partners, all of whom — our NATO allies — all of whom are members of our coalition.
Very briefly, other non-military elements of our coalition include counter-finance, counter foreign fighters, counter messaging. So no matter where you are in the world if you join ISIS or recruit for ISIS or distribute propaganda for ISIS, the global net is closing in.
The newest member of our coalition, for example, is INTERPOL. More than 60 countries are now providing data to INTERPOL to build a global database of known foreign fighters who’ve worked with ISIS. That database had only 40 — 40 people a few years ago, now it has 14,000 and continues to grow.
So, in sum, we’re working as a united team at President Trump’s direction to destroy ISIS and protect our homeland and the record is encouraging. Nearly 60,000 square kilometers liberated, none of it retaken from ISIS all of it is held, 4.1 million people freed, 1.7 million Iraqis now return to their homes.
Propaganda output down significantly, its lowest levels to date; finances down to the lowest levels to date; foreign fighters unable to travel to Syria, and those who are already in Syria are more likely than ever to die there.
This enemy remains adaptive, and the threat will not end with the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, but the end of the phony caliphate is coming into sight. And without telegraphing anything that is to come, the pressure’s only started.
And we’ll work together as a united team, whole of government, to make sure we do everything we can to defeat ISIS on the battlefield. But also in the financial round, propaganda round, and make sure they can never return to areas we retake.
SEC. MATTIS: Thank you, Mr. McGurk. And again, it’s an international coalition, it’s whole of government here in Washington and across our departments. They’ve been thrown onto the back foot, but tough fighting wise ahead. They are still dangerous and it’s going to be — it’s not going to be over soon. But we’re going to continue to press.
With that, can we take your questions?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you described, I think, two changes you said the president made in the general approach in the counter-ISIS campaign. One, I believe you said, was a tactical shift having to do with surrounding ISIS in their strongholds.
I wonder if you could explain a little bit the significance of that and say how will that apply to the coming fight in the mid-Euphrates River Valley between Dawr az Zawr and (inaudible)
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: And in the same vein, in that same area the Syrian government has said that they are going to reassert their authority out in that direction, and that they’re going to challenge opposition forces in the south. I’m wondering, given their — the Russian support for them, how will you navigate that sort of battleground without getting further embroiled in the civil war?
SEC. MATTIS: Navigating this battle ground, this complex battleground, is challenging. We deconflict, as you know, with Russia, maintaining an open deconfliction line with them that’s used constantly. But if I was to talk to the tactic — because they actual impact your section question.
By taking the time up front to surround these locations, instead of simply shoving them from one to another and actually reinforcing them as they fall back, based on the recommendation that we made and the direction that President Trump took we now take the time to surround them. And why do we do it?
Because the foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit, wherever. Those foreign fighters are a threat. So by taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another.
And that’s the approach we take that — that basically threads the needle on a very complex battlefield.
Go ahead, please.
Q: (Off mic) in that valley area, sir? How are you going to apply that out in the valley when you’ve got that long —
SEC. MATTIS: I’ll leave that to the generals who know how to do those kind of things. We don’t direct that from here. They know our intent is the foreign fighters do not get out, I leave it to their skill, their cunning, to carry that out.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to follow up on that. As — you said we will not stop after Raqqa. You moved down the Euphrates River Valley. You have Dawr az Zawr there with Syrian troops located there. And I understand some small numbers are still moving that way.
And then, to the west, you have al-Tanf which you — airstrikes hit some Shia militias heading towards al-Tanf. We have U.S. trainers. The Russians struck there at al-Tanf last year.
So, given those two areas, are you worried about al-Tanf continuing to be a — you know, a place where the militias and the Russians will continue to strike, still under threat?
And also, with Dawr az Zawr, what do you — what do you do as you head down the Euphrates River Valley? Do you just bypass them? Do you coordinate with the Russians? You say here, you will never work with the Assad regime. How do you deal with those troops sitting there — Syrian troops?
GEN. DUNFORD: Hey, Tom. I’ll — I’ll start with it.
And — and — and first, I think as you know, we’re — we’re precluded by law from coordinating with the Russians. Having said that, we have, for many months now, worked very hard to deconflict their operations. And a primary purpose is to ensure the safety of our airmen, our personnel on the ground, and allow us to continue to campaign.
I’m — I’m — I’m confident that we’ve made progress in that regard over the last couple months. Spoke to my counterpart, as recent — my Russian counterpart as recently as last night. We — we speak routinely when we need to, to work through the deconfliction.
In addition to the direct communication that I have, we’ve opened up a three-star level channel where RJ5 here in the joint staff routinely corresponds — communicates with his counterpart in Moscow. And then we have a pretty robust operational link on the ground from our combined air operations center and counter to the — to the Russians on the ground.
And we are looking for the Russians to — to work with the regime, to deconflict our operations. I think what you’re highlighting is absolutely a fair point, which is the ground is becoming increasingly complex and constrained. But to date, we have — we have been able to deconflict operations.
We had a proposal that we’re working on with the Russians right now. I won’t share the details. But — but my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to deconflict operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personnel.
Q: Will that proposal deal with the Syrian sitting there in Dawr az Zawr?
GEN. DUNFORD: It — it will. It will. And we have talked about that as a specific area that requires deconfliction. So, we have done that.
Q: And lastly, you talk about deconfliction. Well, it didn’t work yesterday or the day before when you called the Russians and said get those militias to stop and they did not. You had to strike them.
GEN. DUNFORD: That’s exactly right. And just to be clear, that was a force protection strike. Our commanders on the ground felt like they were threatened at that point. And their rules of engagement allow them to do that.
We’ve gone back and — and — and had a conversation at every level now to ensure that those kinds of incidents don’t take place again. Last night, I — I made a commitment that they wouldn’t happen again if our forces weren’t threatened. And everybody understands what the rules are. So, that’s what’s going to prevent it in the future.
Q: I’d like to ask the — the two veterans of the Obama administration. If the decision at the end of the Obama administration to hold off on arming the Turks and let the Trump administration make that decision, did that have any effect or delaying the assault on Raqqa?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, David, I — I can — I can answer that question directly. It did not.
One of the — one of the preconditions for seizing Raqqa was the isolation of Raqqa, which included — just recently completed a very difficult fight in an area called Tabqa. And I think you’re familiar with that, where the Syrian Democratic Forces actually had 100 killed in that battle alone.
So, we are just at about the point where the seizure of Raqqa would’ve taken place in a normal course of events. So, it has not delayed the seizure of Raqqa.
The only delay was in — in our providing equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces so they could go into the fight. But we were prepared for this decision. Had stockpiled equipment in the event that President Trump made the decision that he did. And we’ve been very quickly able to field that equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces without an operational pause that is without a delay in seizing Raqqa.
Q: The former — let — let me follow up, if I could. Just — (inaudible). Former administration officials have said at — at the time in January, when this decision was made, the — the opinion of both the joint staff and CENTCOM was that the Syrian Democratic Forces would be ready to begin the assault on Raqqa in mid-February. And here — here we are in — in mid-May.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, David, because we’re getting into a more political area where we try to keep our apolitical military — (inaudible) — let me just say that any — any timelines that are given in war time should be taken with a degree of skepticism. We will try to brief you, we’ll try to give you an idea of operation, but you’re dealing with a fundamentally unpredictable situation.
Only now are we completing the encirclement of Raqqa and there’s been no delay in the effort to do that other than the normal vagaries of the battlefield where we have to deal with an enemy who’s trying to defeat us. So far, they’ve been defeated by the SDF in every single battle they’ve been in, but it has been a very tough fight, Tabqa being one more example. So they were not able to move more quickly into the attack on Raqqa for purely tactical and — and battlefield reasons.
(UNKNOWN): Yeah, go ahead.
Q: General Dunford, you just said that you’ve already starting arming the SDF. Could you —
GEN. DUNFORD: No, I didn’t. If I did — if I did, I misspoke. If I did, I misspoke.
GEN. DUNFORD: We’ve been stockpiling equipment. We’re prepared to do that.
Q: So you haven’t started doing that?
GEN. DUNFORD: We haven’t started doing that — to my knowledge. It should happen here very soon.
Q: Could you please give us an assessment about the fall out or any fall out with Turkey? And I’d like to address this to — (inaudible).
GEN. DUNFORD: I’ll talk about it from a military perspective.
First and foremost, we have gone into this with the first principle that Turkey is an important ally and our long-term relationship with Turkey is critical and we were going to protect that. And I think as you may know, as a result, I’ve gone to Turkey, I believe nine times this year. I met with my counterpart over 15 times this year to make sure that we maintain a very close military to military relationship.
We did have a different perspective on the best way to seize Raqqa. In our view, the only option that was viable was with the Syrian Democratic Forces and we are now taking place — taking measures on the ground to mitigate their concerns.
For example, weapons getting into the hands of the PKK or moving into Turkey and we’ve taken steps to make sure that the Turks have transparency on — on what we’re doing and measures to take place that the equipment that we’re providing to the SDF is appropriate, only for operations in Raqqa and that it doesn’t find its way someplace else.
Q: If I could have Mr. McGurk — (inaudible).
MR. MCGURK: Similar to the Chairman, I think I’ve been to Turkey more than any country other than Iraq since I started this job. A critical partner; we cannot defeat ISIS without Turkey and I consult with our colleagues there all the time.
There are talks right now in Geneva about the political way ahead in Syria because as we’re prosecuting the military campaign, I think there’s a parallel diplomatic track of course for the incredibly complex situation in Syria. That’s something that we are fully coordinated with on Turkey and particular the post-Raqqa phase, which I talked about stabilization. That is something where we’ll very closely coordinated with Turkey.
So quick answer to your question, we can’t do this without Turkey. We work with them every single day. We have some differences, as we do with every coalition partner, but they’re very close allies and we consult with them all the time.
Q: In your case, it got personal — (inaudible) — the Turkish foreign minister was on the record regarding —
MR. MCGURK: We had some differences — tactical differences with Turkey, again like many coalition partners, but I have great respect for the foreign minister. He’s a close colleague and a contact, of course, of Secretary Tillerson. We see him quite a bit and look forward to our relationship continuing. I have tremendous respect for him and all of the Turkish officials — (inaudible).
Q: One for you, Mr. Secretary, and then for the Chairman as well. I have to ask you, sir, about this latest North Korean missile launch. By all accounts, it was more successful than anything they’ve done so far. It went to a very high altitude; it came back down into the Earth’s atmosphere. So my question or you, how has this missile launch impacted your thinking, your assessment about the North Korean missile threat?
And if I may, Mr. Chairman, a question for you, sir.
On counterterrorism operations, you yourself described it, putting U.S. forces down at a lower level, putting them more out front. We saw it in Somalia sadly with the Navy SEAL killed. It seems like they’re no longer behind advising. So talk to us if you can about why counterterrorism forces are more out there in front and the risk they’re facing doing that. But, Mr. Secretary, North Korea first, if I may.
SEC. MATTIS: I want to talk principally today about the counter-ISIS fight. But on North Korea, we’re all aware of the provocative actions they’ve taken, and there have been cautions given them by nations from around the world. They clearly aren’t listening.
But there appears to be some impact by the Chinese working here. It’s not obviously perfect when they launch a missile, which I think you pretty accurately just described about going higher and reentry capability; that sort of thing.
But at the same time, we’re going to continue to breed the same kind of pressure internationally that we’ve been trying to. We’re going to continue to work the issue.
As you know, if this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale, and so our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation.
And we press on. There’s many different efforts underway. We have a whole of government approach to this as well, this issue as well. I spend as much time with the secretary of treasury as I do with the secretary of state as we try to craft a sustainable policy forward.
But let me ask the chairman to address your other question.
GEN. DUNFORD: Hey, Barbara, thank — thanks for giving me the chance to clarify. First of all, we haven’t changed the broad guidance to our forces that are working with partners on the ground, and that is they stay at the last cover and conceal position short of the objective, in that they don’t actually close with the enemy.
The specific case I mentioned was we, in the past, had been partnering and advising at the brigade level in Iraq. Because of the complex terrain inside of the city of Mosul, the commander felt like being at the brigade level didn’t allow them to be at the point where they could provide the kind of advice and combined arms support necessary, so we allowed them to partner at the battalion level.
That doesn’t change the fundamental rule that applies to all of our forces that are conducting partnered ops that — that they would be at the last cover and conceal position, and not actually the ones closing with the enemy, because fundamentally we conduct partnered operations. It is the partners who are actually closing with and destroying the enemy.
Q: In Somalia, the Navy SEAL that you mentioned yourselves who was killed, the department publicly said that that — that he and his teammates were alongside the Somali forces; they were not behind —
SEC. MATTIS: Barbara, when you’re on patrol, you can’t always be in a safe position. The lads know they’re not part of a life insurance corporation; they’re trained for this, and they go out and they do their job to the best they can. I’m confident that our military forces are carrying out the intent, which is that they do not put themselves forward to do the job the partnered forces actually want to do, but they need our support in doing.
So thank you. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Can I ask one more North Korea and then I’ll switch back to ISIS? There was a press conference today by the North Korean ambassador, and he was saying that the U.S. had the provocative actions, whereas you had said that they made provocative actions.
And he went on to say that there were ICBM tests by the United States on May 3rd and April 26th. One of them traveled over 6,000 kilometers across the ocean.
Can you confirm any of these ICBM missile tests? Is there any truth to this? And then switching to ISIS. This may be a question for you, Brett. Who’s going to be paying for the government in Raqqa and the security forces in Raqqa once Raqqa is taken?
GEN. DUNFORD: I’ll just take the first one.
And I can confirm that we — that we did test ICBMs. It had nothing to do with North Korea. It wasn’t messaged in that direction. It wasn’t pointed in that direction. In order for us to make sure we have a safe, reliable and effective deterrent, we routinely test our ICBM in accordance with international protocols and in accordance with inspection regimes that are part of those international protocols.
So it wasn’t intended at all to be provocative to North Korea and I think to compare — for North Korea to compare what they have been doing to threaten and intimidate their neighbors, as well as the United States, to our routine military exercises advertised well in advance with full transparency would be an unfair comparison.
MR. MCGURK: You asked a great question.
So when you talk to particularly the folks who will be involved in the Raqqa operation, the post-Raqqa phase, unanimously nobody wants the Syrian regime to come back, regime symbols, regime military forces.
In terms of administrative services, teachers, hospitals, who pays those salaries, that is something where Syrians are going to have to work that out. We are not in the business of, as I said, nation-building operations. But as you, kind of, lift the lid over Syria, you see a lot of this happening in areas even where the opposition controls. Teacher salaries, basic worker salaries oftentimes paid by the government because it’s a very centralized state. So these are things that have to be worked out, but what — what they are unanimous about is no return of the regime.
As I mentioned, in terms of working with the Syrian regime, this just reflects reality. I mean, the reconstruction costs of Syria are — are so high in the multiple, multiple billions of dollars. And unlike Iraq, where there’s a legitimate government elected by his people and recognized internationally with full global support, the U.N. is on the ground, you have a huge outpouring of international support to help these — these communities recover, the reality in Syria is that so long as — until there’s a credible political horizon, the international community is not going to come to the aid, particularly the areas under the control of the regime and these areas have been truly destroyed based upon many of the barbaric tactics that they’ve used.
So that’s just the reality. So until we find a political — a credible political horizon, you are not going to see that international support pour in and the E.U. held a very important conference that reinforce that principle about a month ago. So there’s a lot of work to do here and we’ll be doing it in parallel, of course, with — with — with the military.
Q: The Assad government is going to be paying the bills. Won’t the U.S. State Department and international allies be forced to work alongside him if Raqqa reconstruction gets to that point? Or are you just saying now that Raqqa will not be reconstructed until Assad is — has left?
MR. MCGURK: The basic — we were prepared to do stabilization, hundreds of projects identified to make sure the lights get on, everything else. Give you a perfect example; the Tabqa Dam. Tabqa Dam is one of the most strategic sites in Syria. It provides 20 percent of all electricity in Syria. It was seized and is now controlled — it was controlled by ISIS for years. It was seized and now controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces. We are working locally to de-mine the dam. As we speak, that is happening, local forces — local workers that we trained to help do the de-mining and then getting the workers back to the dam to run the dam. So that’s happening now. There’s no regime presence there whatsoever.
But in terms of these overall relationships within Syria, it is more complex than most people realize when you kind of lift the hood and look what’s going on. So obviously, that will be worked out. But this battle for — for Raqqa has some time to go, and in parallel, we’re working on the civilian and diplomatic aspects of it.
Q: Secretary Mattis, question for you.
You mentioned annihilation of ISIS. What would that look like in Iraq and Syria? How do we know when that has occurred, given that here’s always going to be a residual threat from this group in both countries?
And given the fact that you mentioned these follow-on threats from ISIS in Syria, like in Dawr az Zawr and other areas, does that mean that the American public should expect a long-term presence of American troops in Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: This threat is a long-term threat. That’s why so many nations have signed up. You don’t — you don’t see a coalition this size if it’s some short-term threat or a small regional threat. This is a transnational, long-term threat.
Obviously we’ll move against their other concentrations of forces.
You say, „What does it look like“ — I mean, „What will it look like when we say that we’ve got success?“ I think what we’ll see is the local security forces, police, that sort of organization can handle it. In other words, we drive them down to a point where the locals can handle that and it’s no longer a trans-regional, transnational threat.
So you — you’ve got to drive them down to a point that police can handle it. Police can’t handle a force that’s driving tanks and using artillery, or has thousands of fighters in mobile vehicles that allow them to range far and wide. So we’ve got to drive them down to a point that police elements can handle it.
Q: Okay, can you address the expectations from the American troop presence in Syria? I mean, should Americans expect that they will be there in some numbers for years to come?
SEC. MATTIS: I’m not willing to say that right now. I’d — I’m not willing to sign up for that.
That’s not our intent. We’re there to drive ISIS to its knees. And, as Mr. McGurk pointed out, there’s got to be a political solution to the larger issues there. It’s not going to be U.S. troops at the point of a gun making that happen.
Q: Secretary Mattis, have you taken a decision or made any recommendations on more U.S. troops to Afghanistan? And has a decision been made how many U.S. troops will be going to Afghanistan?
And, separately, did President Trump, when he met with the Russians in the Oval Office — did he share classified information and has that strained any relationships with foreign intelligence services?
SEC. MATTIS: On the number of troops, no, I have not made a recommendation yet. What I’ve done is I’ve gone to Afghanistan. I’ve met with President Ghani, I’ve met with the NATO representatives and I’ve met with our commander in the field. I’ve also been in Brussels and also on the side in Copenhagen; talked with my counterparts there to collect allied input.
And that recommendation is being put together by the chairman and myself, and I expect it’ll go to decision very, very soon. But, no, it has not been made yet.
Q: And about the conversation in the Oval Office with the Russians?
SEC. MATTIS: I — I was not there. I know what I read in the newspaper.
I will tell you this: I have not been asked — this week alone I’ve probably been on the phone with or hosted here in Washington either nine or 11 — I’m losing track of time right now — nine or 11 foreign counterparts, or spoken with the secretary general on the phone and all. The issue has never come up.
Q: I have a quick follow-up for each of you, actually.
General Dunford, when you said that you’ve been able to quickly field equipment to the — to PYG, or the SDF, I guess, what did you mean by that? (inaudible).
Secretary — oh go ahead —
GEN. DUNFORD: I misspoke and what I — what I really meant to say was we had stockpiled equipment and were prepared to quickly field it to the SDF. We haven’t started to provide it to the SDF yet.
And that equipment is in the form of small arms, ammunition and machine guns and — as well as some equipment that will allow them to deal with the IED — the improvised explosive device threat.
So we haven’t actually started to provide that equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces. But over the last couple of months, in anticipation of that decision or in anticipation of us having to provide support to some partners on the ground, even if it wasn’t the Syrian Democratic Forces, we will have stockpiled equipment and be prepared to issue that out.
And so we’ll be able to quickly transition — as they finish the isolation of Raqqa now and transition into the seizure of Raqqa, we’ll be able to take the president’s decision and quickly get that equipment to the SDF.
Thanks for the chance to clarify that.
Q: And, Secretary Mattis, just to Barbara’s question. So, were you confirming that the North Korean missile launch last weekend did have a controlled reentry back into the atmosphere?
SEC. MATTIS: No, I was not. It — they went to a very high apogee. And — and when it came down, obviously from that altitude, we’d be — they probably learned a lot from it. But I’m not willing to characterize it beyond that right now.
Q: And then, Mr. McGurk, actually, just on — I — I just want to be clear. Are you confirming that the Obama administration had made the decision to arm the YPG or to equip the YPG?
And to one of the earlier questions, it was — it was sort of put out there, but no one ever really answered it. Would — can you confirm that the Obama administration —
MR. MCGURK: No, that decision was made by President Trump.
SEC. MATTIS: Let — let’s go to the back row for a minute. I’m hitting everybody up front.
(Inaudible) — go ahead.
Where are you? There you are.
Q: Thank you, Secretary.
SEC. MATTIS: I saw your tie earlier. I wanted to make sure I get it.
Q: Thank you. Thank you so much.
If I could go on — on the annihilation change to encompassing cities. Is that some — something that is going to accelerate timelines? Or is that something that because it’s going to be more force requirements needed, is that something that’s going to delay timelines?
And will potentially, because it’s so — such a force generator, will it require the addition of more U.S. trainers and support?
SEC. MATTIS: It — it is a change in tactics, (inaudible), that we now surround these location — these concentrations of enemy. Any — any indication that I gave a timeline, again, I want to make certain you understand, I don’t put timelines on forces in the field.
They know what the mission is. They do what their professional judgment tells them is possible and what reality delivers to them in terms of a thinking, cunning enemy on the battlefield.
We’re better. That’s proven because they have lost every battle they’ve been fighting now since the coalition has engaged them.
So, we will continue that — that tactic. It does not, I think, relate to a longer campaign. There may be tactical incidents that take longer. I’d defer to the chairman on that.
But the bottom line is the foreign fighters don’t get out is our intent, or at least is greatly reduced in (inaudible) get back home again to bring their hate and discontent back. I think that sums it up.
GEN. DUNFORD: Mr. Secretary, I — I just want to come back one last time to the SDF because it — it’s — it occurs to me that — that there may be a misunderstanding. There’s a Kurdish component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and there’s an Arab component of the — of Syrian Democratic Forces.
We have been providing equipment, weapons to the Arab component for some months. So, that’s been going on.
The decision that President Trump made was to provide equipment to the Kurdish component of the — of the Syrian Democratic Forces. I just wanted to clarify that. It’s clear in my mind. I just want to make sure it’s clear in yours. Thanks.
Q: Yeah, I want to go back to the Tanf operation that took place yesterday. Could you confirm that — that the targeted Shia militias were Iranians or Hezbollah?
And do you see any interest — any vital interest — interest to the U.S. and the coalition to control the whole Syrian-Iraqi border?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, let me take a stab at this. At al-Tanf is what you’re referring to, the force that moved near al-Tanf. Is that what you’re referring to?
That was, again, as the chairman pointed out, self-defense of our forces. It was necessitated, sir, by offensive movement with offensive capability of what we believe were Iranian-directed — I don’t know there were Iranians on the ground, but by Iranian-directed forced inside an established and agreed-upon deconfliction zone.
We believe they moved into that zone against the advice of the Russians. Or — or — you know, apparently against the advice of the Russians. I can’t confirm that either, but it looks like the Russians tried to dissuade them.
Next question. Yes, please?
Q: So bottom line is this — for the American people — is this a major change of the war and its strategy or is this an extension of what’s been happening already? Because President Trump campaigned —
SEC. MATTIS: Is what? What are you referring to?
Q: (inaudible) — you’re describing, your first two points of what’s new on the ground; the new — the delegation of authorities, the decision to do surrounding operations instead of the previous ones, because — because President Trump campaigned on the idea that the ISIS war wasn’t working under Obama, not fast enough for him, there was going to be a major change, he even considered firing generals, a lot was put out there.
So here we are now with — with your first comments. Should the American public think this is a major difference or is this a more — just a natural progression of what should have happened anyway based on last year’s gains?
SEC. MATTIS: I’m not quite sure of your question. I explained to you that we went to him with the situations we saw with suggested changes. He discussed these changes with us with the whole government not just the — not just the Department of Defense and we made the decision — he made the decision, we took the decision and executed for an accelerated campaign, for one that includes surrounding the enemy so they can’t get out and all of the ramification, implications of that.
I mean, that — those are the changes that were going forward. The campaign designed end state remains the same; to destroy ISIS. But no longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington D.C. has to authorize tactical movements on the ground. I have absolute confidence as does the president, our commander in chief, in the commanders on the ground as he’s proven by delegating this authority to me with the authority to further delegate it and they’ve carried it out aggressively.
Q: I’d like to follow up about the Iranian aspect of this. Are you concerned — say in Iraq — that certain armed units have arisen in all this fighting whether it’s the (inaudible) — part of the — (inaudible) popular mobilization forces or the PKK’s presence in Sinjar, that the situation has allowed these armed groups to emerge and they’ll be difficult to control afterwards?
SEC. MATTIS: The Iranian regime has been unhelpful. As you all know, some years ago when the Syrian people rose up against Assad, they would have been successful except for the Iranian reinforcements, full — full support for Assad. That’s the reason he was able to withstand that difficult time and be still in position now. So Iran’s activities have not been helpful.
They’ve been hurtful, they’ve extended a war that should have ended long ago. I’ve been in a lot of refugee camps over my years on active duty from — from the Dalmatian Coast to Africa and other places, seen boat people pulled out of the water off Vietnam. I have never seen refugees as traumatized as I’ve seen come out of Syria. Never. And Iran bears no little responsibility for that situation.
Yes, go ahead.
Q: Can I ask you to clarify a couple things? You’ve given the impression that under President Trump’s administration 55,000 or 60,000 square kilometers have been freed — have been freed up and 1.7 million refugees. Can you give a sense of what was actually accomplished before the Trump administration took office that you are building on and you’ve actually improved on?
You gave the impression, rightly or wrongly, that all this has happened since Trump took office.
MR. MCGURK: As I told — I think the data we put out are total figures, I think the Secretary mentioned and the Chairman mentioned the delegations of authority which has made a difference in terms of the speed of execution, I think Tabqa was an example of that.
I’d really defer to Chairman Dunford but we saw an opportunity — our military people on the ground saw an opportunity to kind of surprise ISIS with a helicopter — moving them by helicopter — surprise them from behind and seize the airport, the dam and the town.
And that happened very fast, able to take advantage of a moving situation on the ground because our commander saw that situation. So I think the speed of execution is significantly — the delegations have made a — have made a difference. But the numbers and the data are aggregate.
(STAFF): Thank you all very, very much. (inaudible) — Thank you.
SEC. MATTIS: We’ll take one more question here — as always —
Q: (Off mic)
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, but — (inaudible) — let me be very clear about this, we were talking about the campaign since 2014, that’s what we’re talking about and you know that at that point ISIS was on the attack, they had the initiative, they were shattering every force in their path.
Since then it’s been reversed. We’ve accelerated, that’s the way I characterized it, Tony — I was not saying it all started with us. We’ve continued — there’s been a lot of countries in this for a long time and we’re going to keep right at it.
We have changed, tactically, how we’re going to carry it out. We have accelerated the campaign and that’s shown up clearly in our tactical reports that are coming in.
But let’s take one more — and this is going to be rough here, you know.
Go ahead please.
Q: One more on Afghanistan.
General Dunford, in your latest trip were you able to secure additional commitments from allies for putting more forces into Afghanistan fight and would their responsibilities expand into the counterterrorism realm?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, I was not able to, nor did I seek to get commitments for additional forces because, at the end of the day, that’ll be decisions made by their heads of state in their parliaments.
And as Secretary Mattis said, on the 25th of May, President Trump will be in Brussels and he’ll meet with his counterparts and I’d expect that that’s when you’d start to see some commitments.
My focus in the — (inaudible) — counterparts was to say that, if political decision makers decide on the 25th of May to increase the forces that are in Afghanistan then we should be prepared to provide those as quickly as possible.
The other point that I discussed with my counterparts was that we actually have some unfulfilled, as General Nicholson has spoken about and Secretary General Stoltenberg has spoken about, there’s some unfulfilled requirements outstanding today. And so I encourage them to meet those requirements. And what commitment I did receive is that they would all go back and look within their capability to do more in Afghanistan.
I was very encouraged by the tone in Brussels and by — around the room, I think it’s fair to say, 28 of the 28 nations sitting around the table, all were committed to an enduring presence in Afghanistan and continue to support, particularly President Ghani’s articulated plan for security.
Q: Are those allies waiting for a signal from President Trump as to how many forces —
(STAFF): Thank you.
SEC. MATTIS: Appreciate it.
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